I have never met Bill Clegg, but we seem to have a lot in common. I learned in his new memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, that we’re both white people who come from dysfunctional families in rural towns who nursed dreams of getting out. We both moved to NYC after attending uncool colleges, with no plan other than to “become something.” We both became literary agents, falling into a career we seemed thrillingly, finally suited for. We both love photography, and Bill Eggleston in particular. We’re both single and into dudes. We both had problems with painful urination as children and we both have abused illicit substances with abandon. For me, it was Vicodin — or any fun pill I could get my hands on. For Bill, it was alcohol and crack.
Bill Clegg, for the uninitiated, is a talented and best-selling literary agent. The authors he represents, or has, are among the best-reviewed novelists and poets of the last decade (Nicole Krauss, Nick Flynn, Anne Carson) and the advances gleaned for his list are often noteworthy. But after a meteoric rise, at age 34, Bill Clegg took $70,000 and his crack pipe and in 2005 walked away from his stable of writers, his boyfriend, and his pregnant business partner, Sarah Burnes — dissolving their company in a single email to her — and disappeared. Rumors swirled and authors scattered. At the time I knew many people who had been burned by The Addict personally, and in every case they were angry, exhausted and resigned.
A year and a half later he reemerged, having been quickly snatched up by the maniacal Jennifer Rudolph Walsh to agent for William Morris (now William Morris Endeavor). He surprised nearly every agent that had inherited his mess by luring many of the same writers he’d abandoned back to his fold (Flynn, Stephen Elliot, Heather McGowan). Then in 2008, Walsh sold Clegg’s memoir for a widely reported $350,000 to Little, Brown. The proposal was eagerly passed among colleagues –- what would the book reveal about Clegg’s own personal Lost Weekend?
I should say that since his comeback, I have heard glowing reports from various authors he represents. Clegg is known to be a gifted reader, an intuitive editor and a person who understands the needs and temperaments of The Writer. Bill Clegg defenders and fans -– men and women alike — really seem to love him. And people who have been burned by him are really in a kind of angry shock right now.
But the recent publication of POAAAAYM and the barrage of praise heaped upon it (such as in Vogue and the New York Times), all seemingly accompanied by fresh photo spreads of a brooding and contemplative man reformed, have infuriated those scorned by Clegg and baffled early readers like me. These pieces don’t really talk about the writing or the book’s specific contribution to the so-called recovery memoir. What Jay McInerney, in Vanity Fair, calls “literary methadone” I call unbelievably pretentious, almost icky writing. (Sample sentence: “I sit back down on the bed and look out the window to the early evening light as it gentles the buildings across the street.”)
The packaging of this book, the title itself, the flashbacks to childhood written in the third person, and the dead serious tone are meant to introduce Clegg as a writer with significant literary gifts. But considering the content, I find it interesting that the author seems completely unaware of the ironies of his situation (when it’s time to put the pieces of his life back together, Clegg need only sell one or two of his Eggleston’s to buy the time he needs to get back on his feet).
More than that, I think Clegg’s depiction of his drug use is actually kind of glamorous. Despite all the hype about a man who “lost everything,” can someone please tell me what is so “brutal” about going on a drug and sex fueled rampage through Manhattan when you’re staying in its best hotels? Though he is on the run from family, friends and The Law, Clegg remains steadfast in his aversion to slumming it even a little, never stooping so low as to enter even a Holiday Inn. Because crack is among the cheapest highs in the city, he probably could have gotten more bang for his buck if he hadn’t been so intent on constantly imploding at the Carlysle, the Mercer, 60 Thompson et al.
And I can’t help but think that Clegg’s brave reveals are actually super lame. In a scene meant to detail how desperate things had gotten, Clegg’s long suffering boyfriend Noah somehow finds him at the Gansevoort, just in time for some sex with a Brazilian rent boy. As the two commence, Clegg shares that he became aware that Noah was also there on the bed, holding his hand and weeping. (Where I come from, this is called “a threesome.”)
Then there is the alternate narrative: the chapters written in third person that describe a five year old boy and his shame over an inability to urinate properly and without pain. We learn that he is afflicted with this undiagnosed condition until he is 13, but he doesn’t remember it again until he is 26, and then all at once. I wait for the charges of molestation or some kind of connection to his addictions, but this story simply peters out. (By the way, Clegg, your condition was likely Interstitial Cystitis, and mine was cured once I discovered anti-depressants.)
I get that when one is caught up in the throes of drug abuse, one is not known for being rational or subtle or introspective, but something about this story feels like cheating. The appropriated title (Joyce), appropriated cover art (Flynn) and unrepentant narcissism (vintage Clegg?) feel forced and ultimately hollow. Sometimes writing is “spare” or “streamlined” because it’s not the whole truth.
The closest Clegg comes to apologizing to his former colleagues, friends and associates is not an apology at all, but more of a vague lament. Of those he left behind he writes, “At first I’m consumed with shame and fear and regret, but slowly, with the help of kindred spirits, these feelings evolve, are still evolving, into something less self-concerned.” What’s wrong with shame and regret if it’s genuinely felt and expressed? Could it be that this is a person who apologized to those he thought could help his career, and that this book, which couldn’t be more self-concerned, is for the rest of us?
Here he is now, heroic in his accomplishment. Not only has he conquered New York, he’s more successful than ever. He’s a well-regarded agent at WME. In addition to realizing his publishing dreams, he’s made a lot of money (the sale of the sequel to POAAAAYM, entitled 90 Days has just recently been announced). Celebrated photographer Brigitte Lacombe took the portrait that graces his book jacket. He’s recently appeared in all the publications that matter, including a featured excerpt in New York Magazine, and a photo shoot in Vogue that makes him look exactly like the very healthy, very handsome preppy power bottom that he was, is, but claims he never thought he’d be. In the New York Times, Clegg reveals the source of his issues as “deep-seated insecurities about making it in a city where everyone seemed richer, Ivy-educated and better bred.”
“I never got the handbook,” he said. To which I say to Clegg now: I think you just wrote it.